Humans regularly lose their lives rushing into disaster zones. Now engineers are racing to build robots that can take their place.
By the end of next year, robots will walk into a disaster zone. They won’t roll in on wheels or rumble in on treads. They will walk, striding across rubble, most of them balancing on two legs. Compared with human first responders, the machines will move slowly and halt frequently. But what they lack in speed, they make up for in resilience and disposability. Chemical fires can’t sear a robot’s lungs, and a lifespan cut short by gamma rays is a logistical snag rather than a tragedy.
They’ll have the mobility to do what robots couldn’t at Fukushima, navigating a crisis that unfolds in an environment lousy with doors, stairs, shattered infrastructure, and countless other obstacles. Where previous humanoid bots could barely trundle over the lip of a carpet, these systems will have to climb ladders and slide into vehicles that they themselves drive. And while the ability to turn a doorknob is now cause for celebration even in top-tier robotics labs, these bots will open what doors they can and use power tools to hammer or saw through the ones they can’t.
Because disasters tend to degrade or knock out communication, the surrogates will have a surprising amount of responsibility. Very few, if any, will be tele-operated systems, driven remotely by people using a joystick or wearing sensor gloves. The humanoids will take orders from distant humans, but they’ll use their own algorithms to determine how to properly grip a Sawzall, where to start cutting, and for how long.
The catastrophe the robots will be walking into is, in fact, an obstacle course, built for the two-year-long DARPA Robotics Challenge, which launched last October. At stake is a $2-million prize, awarded to the team whose machine not only scores well in a head-to-head competition this December, but prevails at a second one in 2014. Bots will have to perform eight different tasks, demonstrating both mobility and manipulation skills, that might be required of human first responders.
“What we’ve seen in disaster after disaster, from Hurricane Katrina to Fukushima and now to Superstorm Sandy, is that there are often clear limitations to what humans can accomplish in the early stages of a disaster,” says Gill Pratt, program manager for the challenge. “DARPA believes that robots can substitute for humans where and when situations are too dangerous.”
The competition rules don’t explicitly call for a humanoid design, but the tasks and environment make one a logical choice. From the height of doorknobs to the placement of brake pedals, nearly everything will be positioned and proportioned for creatures that walk upright. The places we care about most in a disaster are where humans live and work—a robot made in our own image is a natural fit.
Completing just a few of the competition’s tasks would be a remarkable achievement. Nailing all eight of them would be something more. It could mean the birth of the viable humanoid, a machine that’s both competent and robust. Such robots could go where mankind has gone before but shouldn’t again, striding toward the toxic plume or the reactor in meltdown, into the fresh ruins of the built world. These robots could be heroes.